C is for Cut throat

Debopam Roy previews the teams from Group C.

Group C, along with Group A and group F, forms a set of unique groups in this year’s World Cup where the four countries in the respective groups represent four different continents. However of all the eight groups, this is the unique group as none of the countries have ever played any of the other countries in the 19 previous World Cups. That is not really surprising given that two of the teams made their World Cup debuts in 1990s and one in 2006. Add to the fact that cumulatively they have only ever gone to the round of 16 three times (only Japan repeating it) and this World Cup then becomes a huge opportunity for these countries to finally fulfil the expectation that many of them have always carried.

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For some, Colombia would forever be associated as a country being called favourites by Pele and then crashing out of USA 94 in ignominy followed by the tragedy of Andres Escobar’s killing. That team was of Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon, Rene Higuita – the golden generation if there was one. Despite qualifying for all three World Cups in 1990s, they only had the round of 16 clash in 1990 to talk about. That golden generation’s zenith was reached in its final days, when they won the Copa America in 2001.

Since 1998, Colombia had failed to reach the World Cups for three straight times. That wait is over now. And the talk is of a new golden generation. This generation is led by old guard of Mario Yepes but has prolific strikers (Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez), creative midfielders (James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin), wide men capable of burning through the wings (Juan Guilermo Cuadrado, Pablo Armero), solid defenders (Cristian Zapata, Yepes himself and wonderkid Eder Alvarez Balanta who has made his debut aged only 21 and can be an able backup).

Colombia comfortably breezed through the South American campaign on the back of a solid defence that conceded the least while scoring the third highest number of goals and finished only two points off the topper Argentina. Radamel Falcao was ostensibly the focal point of the attack, top scoring with nine goals.  Teofilo Gutierrez backed him up with six goals. They have since then strengthened their claims with friendly victories against Serbia and Belgium before drawing against fellow qualifiers Netherlands.

Jose Pekerman, who had won three Under-20 World Cups with Argentina and managed the senior team to the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals, playing sublime football at times, has revolutionised the Colombian team as well. After a bout of experimentation, he has settled on a 4-2-2-2 formation with two roving attacking midfielders behind the two strikers. That would change to a 4-2-3-1 formation effortlessly against teams where more prudent approach is required. His performances as the helm of the Colombian team have seen him win the South American Coach of the Year consecutive times in 2012 and 2013. His tenure is capped by performances like the thumping 4-0 victory over Uruguay in September 2012 or coming from three goals down to claim a 3-3 draw with Chile in the penultimate round of qualifying campaign.

Since the heydays of 2003, this is the first time that Colombia has been in the top 5 in the FIFA rankings. They have shuttled between fourth and fifth place in the FIFA ranking for past one year while managed to climb onto third place once, and much is expected again of them. But the history has been one of underachievement over the years. The lone time they managed to cross the group stages of World Cup, Roger Milla took Rene Higuita’s adventurous foray up the field to score the memorable goal that dumped Los Cafeteros (the coffee growers) out of Italia ’90. This time too the spending qualifying campaign and superlative continental form which allowed Colombia to be seeded has taken its toll in terms of the injury to Falcao who underwent knee surgery for ligament damage and it would be quite a miracle for him to come back in time for the World Cup in his full splendour. But with a group where they are top seeds and none of the other three teams have a World Cup record that is superior to them, this is the best chance Los Cafeteros have of putting on their best show. Their opponent in the next round will be a team from Group D – one of mighty Italy, Uruguay or England. So Colombia’s chances of bettering their best performance in the tournament remains slim.

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Greece is one of the few European teams that have reached multiple World Cups but never progressed beyond the group stage. This inability shows that they are a team that can possibly punch above their cumulative weight over a long period of time but cannot take the heat of the big stage. Their lone European triumph in 2004 is the shining exception to this history. That win was the pinnacle of the German manager Otto Rehhagel.  Rehhagel was also the manager that presided over the only victory that Greece have managed in World Cup finals – a 2-1 win over Nigeria in 2010.

Greece was in Group G for the qualification campaign – one of the weaker groups in Europe. Only Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia could have posed seriousa qualification problems for them. Both Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified easily but the problem of Greece has always been scoring goals and Bosnia-Herzegovina pipped them on superior goal difference to top the group and clinched the automatic spot in World Cup. Greece scored only 12 goals in 10 matches but their defence was as impregnable as ever conceding only four goals and none of them were from open play. Greece’s inability to score as well as to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina in either of their matches was responsible for them going into a two-legged play-off. Luck played its part that Greece faced Romania in the play-offs. Konstantinos Mitroglou scored three goals in the two legs and Greece drew 1-1 away and thrashed a sorry Romania 3-1 at home to qualify for the finals.

Mitroglou will lead the line in the 4-3-3 that manager Fernando Santos plays. Dimitris Salpingidis and Giorgios Samaras are the possible partners for Mitroglou. Greece has a plethora of defensive midfielders to battle for the centre but there is a lack of creative outlet that would free the defence. The early promise of Sotiris Ninis didn’t come through and so the creative burden would lie with Ioannis Fetfatzidis. Captain Giorgos Karagounis is the most capped Greek player in history and the 37-year-old would like his last major tournament to be a memorable one.

For the first time Greece got an opportunity of being in a group which doesn’t have any of the traditional superpowers of football and hence they would that feel there is a genuine chance of progress. However other teams in the group are probably better balanced. It may come down to the simple task of if they manage to find a regular goal scorer. If they do reach the second round, then the legend of Otto Rehhagel and his 2004 batch will have a companion.

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This is the third straight World Cup for the Ivory Coast and their third ever World Cup. That probably proves that this is legitimately a golden generation of footballers who have achieved far more than any other set of footballers to play for the tiny African nation. They also are the top ranked African nation in FIFA ranking and hence have the burden of expectation to carry.

Ivory Coast was in Group C of African qualifying competition with Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia.  Ivory Coast came into this qualifying campaign on the back of a heartrending 8-7 loss against Zambia in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. Manager Francois Zahoui was sacked following this. A new and untested manager in the shape of Sabri Lamouchi was appointed. Lamouchi, born in France of Tunisian descent had played 12 times for France and had finished with his playing career only three years back in 2009. His ascent to the hot seat was out of the blue as he had no previous coaching experience at any level. In fact he had finished his coaching degrees only weeks before his assignment was to start. However he managed to bring fresh ideas which allowed Ivory Coast to breeze through the group undefeated and thus qualified for the second round of African qualifiers. At this stage they met Senegal, who had topped group J. Over a two-legged play-off, The Elephants beat Senegal 4-2 in aggregate where an away 1-1 draw consolidated the 3-1 win at home. The away trip was a nervy affair though. Senegal needed one more goal to go through on the basis of away goal until Salomon Kalou scored in the injury time.

The team still has 8-9 players who played in 2006 and 2010. This group, who have reached two finals of African Cup of Nations, only to lose in penalties over both time and to reach 2 World Cups and not go on to the second round, needs one last defining performance to truly call itself the golden generation. The likes of Didier Drogba, Toure brothers, goalkeeper Boubacar Barry are considered legends. The new generation of players like the Toulouse wing back – Serge Aurier, Saint-Etienne winger Max Gradel, Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, Monaco’s Lacina Traore or CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia are very much part of the fabric that would take Ivory Coast forward in future. It is the success of these players’ integration into the current mix with the old hands that would define how far the run of The Elephants would be.

Among all the teams of Group C, it is Ivory Coast who should be happy with the teams they have been put with. Twice the Elephants had qualified for the World Cup and twice they were put in the Group of Death. In 2006, they had Serbia and Montenegro, The Netherlands and Argentina in their group and in 2010 that became Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. Finally they have a group where they would feel that they can be equals with any of the other teams but they would need a large dose of luck to get into the next round.

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If there is one team from Asia that has progressed in terms of quality of football, it is Japan. Five straight World Cup qualifications show that they have mastered the art of showing up at the main event of world football. By reaching the round of 16 in 2010 World Cup, they have also shown that their team had learned the secret of qualifying from a group even when the tournament is not played at home.

Japan was placed in Group C in the third round of AFC qualification with Uzbekistan, North Korea and Tajikistan. Japan did just about enough to qualify through behind Uzbekistan as they lost against North Korea and Uzbekistan. Apart from their matches against Tajikistan, Japan couldn’t manage to score more than a single goal in any of their other matches. In the fourth round, Japan was paired with Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq. Apart from a loss to Jordan and two draws against Australia, Japan managed to win rest of their matches thus comfortably sealing the first spot. In the process, they became the first nation to qualify for the tournament after hosts Brazil as early as June 2013.

The team is full of foreign-based stars who are reaching their prime. The likes of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) defenders Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04), and Maya Yoshida (Southampton) midfielders Makoto Hasebe (Nurnberg) provide the solidity. The stars though are the attacking midfielders – Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Shinji Kagawa (Man United), Keisuke Honda (AC Milan). Okazaki has 38 international goals (joint third in all time list for Japan), Honda has 20 (10th in all-time list) and Kagawa, the youngest of the lot, has 17 goals already. They are the three creative players who would shape much of Japan’s fortune. What they lack though is a true out and out striker. Two new strikers were introduced to fill this position – Yuya Osako and Yoichiro Kakitani. Osako has three goals in 6 appearances for Japan. The 23-year-old got a contract from TSV 1860 Munchen in January 2014 and in his 14 appearances, knocked up 6 goals for the German side. Kakitani who was the most valuable player in the AFC U-17 championship in 2006, is still playing in the J League but in his 9 appearances for the national team, has managed to find the net 4 times. If these two can keep true to their promise, then Japan would probably as exciting an attacking team as any in the tournament.

Manager Zaccheroni has faced some criticism over to his reluctance to introduce new blood into the team. Off late, he has introduced fresh faces in the team as they won the inaugural EAFF East Asian Cup. They also beat Belgium and drew with Holland in friendlies last November thus bolstering the confidence. Zaccheroni prefers to play the 4-2-3-1 where the trio of Honda, Okazaki and Kagawa roam behind the lone striker and wing-backs like Nagatomo and Uchida float past to provide wing options. With the quality in this team, the expectation back home is at least of a quarter-final but Japan would have to be wary of the defensive grit of Greece and the attacking flair of the Colombians, whom they have never beaten in their previous two encounters, to really hope for a smooth progress. Overall this is a talented team that can go far if their attacking talent can sprout fully.

About Debopam Roy

Debopam Roy follows football in Italy and South America. You can reach him on Twitter @rossoneri